Monday, 18 August 2008

Poets and their ideas: the web theory

I have been reading through John Lucas's England and Englishness, looking for material to help me with my subject at Liverpool in a couple of months time.

It is a very good, learned, fiercely argued book, but it's not exactly what I am looking for. It is not poets' ideas about England, not their deliberate constructions of Englishness that matter for this project: it is the sense of a people, or subset of people, talking - and, chiefly, writing - about anything at all.

Ideas do matter, of course, since they are latent in talk, and help form it - not just in terms of subject but in terms of tone, register, syntax, the lot. But it is not so much ideas as noise I am interested in.

In any case there is a danger with scholars, with ideologues, with the politically committed, of evaluating poetry in terms of ideas. If a poet's ideas are valuable then the poetry must be valuable too. If the ideas are wrong, so is the poetry. Under it all is an assumption that this writer's whole sense of life is wrong.

But the poetry is not the poet and, to my mind, reading a poem with the chief purpose of extracting ideas from it is like taking a chisel to a spiderweb in order to extract the spider. Blake, whom I adore, is not, I think, a better poet than Wordsworth through being a more radical political figure. I may like and approve of him more as a person but I wouldn't wish to shortchange Wordsworth's poems on such grounds.

The nature of the poem is to amplify and distil everything - ideas, sensations, observations, noises - into language that does several things at once. The construction is closer to the rhizomatic model proposed by Deleuze and Guattari in so far as I understand it. But what do I know? I am a poet not a theorist.

So let's call it a web for now. Where is the spider? Gone. It's all web. No webs without spiders, of course, it is just that it is the web that is the point, the thing we are looking at, not the spider.

It was a web I blundered into when I came to England, a series of webs in fact. It set me to making webs of my own eventually, but, frankly, even my own spider puzzles me.

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